The Forum: Has it Outlived its Purpose?

by Terra_Cide, HSM Editor-in-Chief

What is a community? If one were to look up the word in the Oxford dictionary, you would find the following definitions:

• a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common;
• a group of people living together and practising common ownership;
• a particular area or place considered together with its inhabitants;
• a body of nations or states unified by common interests;
• (the community) the people of a district or country considered collectively, especially in the context of social values and responsibilities; society

While some of the above does hold relevance, for this article, we’ll primarily be focusing on this definition:

• [mass noun] the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common

Home is a community. You can call it a gaming platform, you can call it a program, you can call it a three-dimensional chatroom, or you could even call it the dog’s breakfast – I don’t care.

Home is a community. It has groups, cliques, factions, rumors, gossip, outcasts and loners. It has shared and dissenting beliefs.

The societal mores that dominated my parents’ upbringing are having far fewer relevancies in the world I’m living in and raising my own child, and in some cases, never had any relevancy at all. I, like so many others of my generation, have come to rely on the network of friends that is spread out literally around the globe, on Home and elsewhere. Together, we have shared in the joys of love, of career success, of marriages and births. We have consoled each other in fights, breakups and deaths, including when it’s been the death of one of our own.

Norse is fond of quoting what a friend of his once remarked to him about Home – that you have to be damaged in some way to enjoy it. Home itself is an underdog, widely dismissed by the established gaming community – and especially in gaming “journalism” – as an also-ran, doomed to failure in the gaming race. This is likely why – despite the community’s own complaints about Home – the war sabre gets rattled should an “outsider” make similar disparaging remarks. Someone who doesn’t know Home or its community criticizing it and picking apart its flaws for public consumption would be much like a complete stranger doing the same thing to one of our friends. We’d rally around that person, even if they can more than stand up to the offending party.

Or at least, that’s how it is just about anywhere in the Home community, outside of its official forum.

The behavior that has been displayed by the majority of community members in the past few months in the forums has been less than savory. These aren’t people who are new to Home (or forums, for that matter) or are ignorant to the community’s mores, either.

First, there’s complaining about not being informed.

Then there’s complaining about being informed in advance about something because it will mean the end of Home as we know it.

Then there’s the complaining about how they are “owed” something because of how much they’ve spent, “done” for the community, or how long they have been on the forum/Home, lording their tenure over others as if their frequency has any significance, regardless if they’ve posted anything of value.

From the taunting of fellow Home members over something as trite as a pixelated velvet rope, to calling others “elitist” because they own or have access to particular virtual items, help out in the community, or communicate using proper spelling and grammar, the forum, while never exactly utopia to begin with, has been routinely hitting all-time lows for the past year or two. People have even gone so far as to polarize the community into an “us versus them” by claiming the developers are creating a class divide by offering certain products or services.

Of late, the current fuel – as it has been since it was announced in January – is the 1.75 update. And, more recently, the merging of the Home Community Volunteers with the MVP program.

Is this whinging really necessary?

This is not to say that dissenting opinions – when expressed with a modicum of temperance and intelligence – are of no value. Indeed, questioning of the status-quo is necessary at times to spur on progress; liking everything is just as much an anathema to progress as mindless complaining.

However, the level of vitriolic – and at times not-so-subtle personal – attacks does little to further a cause, and only serves to leave a bitter taste and a long lasting negative impression upon those whose already look down upon Home. It’s even more shameful when good people fall for obvious bait and drop to all-time lows; it’s shameful because whether they know it or not, they’re better than that. People may have legitimately valid points, but they’re cloaked behind so many daggers that it negates any of that legitimacy, leaving the only people who pay attention to their words the ones who use similar devices.

With the attempts at broadening and homogenizing the PlayStation brand by SCEA – and likewise, its customer base – there really is no daily involvement and direction provided by The Powers That Be, thus acerbating the forum’s downward spiral. I mean really, how many hats can a community manager wear and still be effective at their job?

It’s not just a problem that is exclusive to Sony’s forums, either. The very beginning of this year, BioWare’s David Gaider posted on his personal blog about how he rarely goes to their official forums due to the overwhelming quantities of negativity, and to me, that’s a damn good reason.

When the primary tool you as a creator have at your disposal to receive thoughtful feedback and inspiration instead leaves you with the feeling that you not only now hate creating, but life in general, there’s something broken. And sadly, it’s not always the fault of of the users, but with the gatekeepers themselves.

So the question must be asked: has the time of the official Home forum on Sony passed? Is all this back-biting and bickering really the face we want to put forth to all of those who don’t have the vaguest idea of what Home is, and stumbling upon the official forum – believing to find a useful resource – get subjected to scenes worthy of the smear campaigns seen this past election cycle?

Just so we’re clear that’s it’s not exclusively a Home/PlayStation/Sony problem: I dread whenever I have to go to an official forum – any official forum – as hosted and facilitated by a company, and have done so for roughly the past ten years. Why? Because the people that control those forums often behave like those overindulgent parents we universally are annoyed (and in some extremes, disgusted) by. They talk about discipline and rules, sure, but rarely is it ever carried out. And instead everyone else has to endure putting up with children that have all the mannerisms of Bonobo chimpanzees cracked out Red Bull and methamphetamines – and are twice as rude.

And to those crying about the recent tightening up and closing down of threads over there? Good, it’s about damn time. It is about two years too late, though.

Much of the same patterns can be seen in the policies of pretty much any official forum you find on the internet. It never fails, and it’s not as if they can really help it. They are, after all, in the business to make money, and so they’re constantly tightrope walking between keeping the peace and pleasing everyone. The problem with that though is companies tend to err far too much on the side that is wary of offending customers – and therefore making them take their money elsewhere – that it doesn’t take long for people to abuse this leniency, creating a toxic culture that not only chases off other users (be they new or old), but also casts the entire service in a negative light. All thanks to a small handful of delusional, self-entitled tyrants creating a culture that readily shuns and ridicules anyone – including service providers – not sharing in their particular viewpoint of How Things Should Be.

And as an aside, I have my doubts that these people actually want Home – or any of its third party developers, for that matter – to succeed, and have made it their life’s work to sabotage it these past years.

Would Sony be better off killing off the forum? On one hand, it would effectively kill off the sole source of any sort of customer service Sony has for Home. It is very unfortunate that the forum is the only place to go in order to have a problem sorted out with Home. But if there was no forum to support, would that free resources up to provide actual customer service? Babysitting malcontents is not a cost-effective way to provide customer service – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. After all, the whole point of Home is to socialize – in real time – online. Why does it need to have a redundant piece of outdated social media?

Change Home’s website presence to a FAQ, a means of contacting customer support – a proper, Home-knowledgeable customer support – a list of useful information about Home (the stickied threads that exist now are a good place to start), and – perhaps – a monitored means for users to contribute to an events list, club list, or volunteer their services for personal space tour/a place for people to sign up for tours.

Beyond that, places for off-Home social interactions are not hard to find. There are a considerable amount of Home fansites, all catering their unique camps, and all it takes is a few keystrokes on Google to find them. These fansites are considerably smaller than their official counterpart, but then their managers also do not have to oversee a behemoth such as the pantheon of SCEA (or SCEE, for that matter) PlayStation forums, so there is – for the more reputable sites – a far closer monitoring of community behavior.

The developers, too, have started their own blog-type sites, as well as increasing their presence on Facebook, making feedback for their products far easier for them to find, as opposed to digging through irrelevant to their interest threads and off-topic (and/or completely nonconstructive commentary whatsoever) posts within the threads that are. They have to; after all, ever since the 2011 PSN outage, they’ve realized that no matter what Home’s fate is post-PS3, if they want to continue as a business, they have to branch out into developing other commodities. And with very little promotion of their existing Home commodities to be found coming from SCEA, there is a need for them to interface with the consumer base more directly.

So it must be asked: what viable, constructive purpose does the forum still serve, when its best voices have been drowned out in a sea of unchecked personal attacks and self-entitled whining?

Does it, in fact, serve any purpose at all any longer?

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